illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

Start Free Trial

Narrative Sketch

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"The Devil and Tom Walker" was published in 1824 in Washington Irving's Tales of a Traveller. It is widely recognized as the best story in the book and the third best of all his tales (after "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.") Having established an international literary reputation, Irving had committed himself to a career as a professional man of letters, and the mixed critical reception that Tales of a Traveller received stung him badly. Modern readers of stories in this volume are often struck by the folk or fairy-tale quality of the narratives and by Irving's evocation of an older American landscape rich in symbolic texture.

Irving's career and work is best understood in the context of the enormous cultural and ideological changes transforming the new nation at the time. By the 1820s, the United States had concluded its second war with Britain, Lewis and Clark had already explored the West, and the population grew from a little over five million to nine-and-a-half million in the years 1800-1820. Still, 97 percent of Americans lived in rural communities. The country was poised for great change: By 1850 the population reached 21 million and the proportion of urban dwellers increased sharply. During these turbulent years, inventions that spurred industrial growth, like the steamboat, the cotton gin, the telegraph, and eventually the railroad, dramatically shaped Americans' sense of themselves.

Irving was not an unqualified believer in the popular notions of progress and expansion. He consciously chose British literary models and spent most of his life living outside of the United States because he believed that the only hope for American culture was to attach itself to the traditions of Britain. Tales of a Traveller was written and published in England, where Irving enjoyed a large audience and had cultivated a reputation for charm and civility. His literary depictions of the New World tend to find value in times past when American culture was more closely tied to the values of the Old World. One of the reasons that Irving had such a large readership was that his writing harkened back to an older time, before materialism and commercialism became leading forces in the newly emerging American society. Nevertheless, as many readers of "The Devil and Tom Walker" are well aware, Irving's fictional America is hardly a new Eden, unspoiled and uncorrupt. Rather, the fictional landscape of the "The Devil and Tom Walker" seems haunted by events of the past and infused by Irving's occasionally biting satire.

''The Devil and Tom Walker'' is written in the genre that Irving practically invented—the fictional sketch. One of his innovations was the fictional narrator, in this case Geoffrey Crayon, who views events and reports local legends with good-natured skepticism. The device of the narrator serves several purposes for Irving. First, it allows him to distance himself from his readers. Many critics suggest that he started to rely on this mechanism when he sensed that his reading public was dwindling. Second, the intervention of Crayon permits Irving to tell fantastic stories without having to attest to their truth. According to Donald Ringe in his essay "Irving's Use of the Gothic Mode," this device allowed Irving, a man who subscribed to the dominant realistic philosophies of the day, to present "ghosts and goblins as actual beings" without having to explain them as natural phenomena. As readers, by extension, we do not have to believe that Tom Walker actually consorted with the devil, only that the legend says he did.

Irving's use of these gothic themes within the framework of the fictional sketch raises another...

(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

issue, however. Irving's satirical purposes makes less important the question whether the devil, the pirate Kidd, or the treasure are real. In an allegory like "The Devil and Tom Walker" the fantastic elements are ''real'' in the sense that they represent something else. The comedy of satire works because of the different ways readers can interpret the story. For example, Irving and his ideal readers—those in on the joke—get to poke fun at the fictional audience for this story, those who actually believe that Tom Walker met the devil in the woods, made a deal with him, and later was earned off to his fate in a carriage driven by black horses. The narrator is a kind of intermediary between audiences, sometimes gullible ("Such, according to this most authentic old story, was all that was to be found of Tom's wife") and sometimes judgmental ("Like most short cuts, it was an ill-chosen route").

By setting the story in New England, Irving is invoking the young country's colonial past. The description of the dark forest with its dark history of an Indian massacre hardly portrays a people proudly connected to their own noble heritage. Instead, Irving seems to suggest that this is a community content to bury and forget old atrocities, and, more broadly, that the nation eager to bury its own history is doomed to be haunted by it. The woods in this tale also invoke the Puritan's sense that the wilderness is the habitat of all sorts of evil. Readers will recognize the similarity to the dark wood of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," for example. Tom's short cut is, of course, a quicker route through the woods, but it also represents what Irving sees as the American tendency toward quick fixes and quick profits.

Irving's allegory in "The Devil and Tom Walker" is very broadly drawn. In fact, many readers agree with Mary Weatherspoon Bowden in her book Washington Irving when she says that ''occasionally [his] allegory gets in the way of the story." The example that Bowden points out is that neither the pirate Kidd nor the treasure, not having any allegorical work to do, ever reappear after the first paragraph. After the pirate and the treasure are dispensed with, however, what remains is a stinging indictment of what Irving believes to be the state of economics and politics in the United States.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is an educator and the coordinator of the undergraduate writing center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Construction of "The Devil and Tom Walker"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Although it is unquestionably one of Washington Irving's finest tales, "The Devil and Tom Walker'' has never attracted much critical attention. First published in 1824 in Part IV of Tales of a Traveller, the tale recounts the fate of an avaricious New Englander, who sells his soul to the Devil in return for Captain Kidd's treasure, and is finally carted off to Hell after a long and profitable career as a usurer in colonial Boston. For the most part, critics have been content to note that the tale is "a sort of comic New England Faust," or that it "is redolent of the American soil." In other words, the consensus is that the tale has certain Germanic overtones but is indigenous to the young American republic in which Irving grew up. No one, however, has really attempted to examine the possible sources for this work or note the complex manner in which Irving has interwoven numerous motifs from American and German folklore....

At the outset, it is significant that no source has ever been discovered for "The Devil and Tom Walker." Most commonly, critics cite the Faust theme as the basis for the tale, but this is rather inaccurate, for Tom Walker is in no sense a scholar who desires to extend the limits of human knowledge. In actuality, it is not the Faust theme but the well-known motif M211, Man sells soul to devil, that lies at the heart of the tale. This, however, is only one of numerous folk motifs used, and taken by itself, it provides little insight into the source or structure of the tale. The problem here is that unlike ''Rip Van Winkle,'' which is largely patterned on a complete tale, "The Devil and Tom Walker" is based on a series of folk motifs gathered by Irving from a wide variety of sources. It is important at this point to understand the exact distinction between a tale and a motif. The former is a complete and independent narrative which consists of one or more motifs traditionally associated with each other, while the latter is ''the smallest element in a tale having a power to persist in tradition." Generally, motifs fall into one of three categories: "the actors in a tale," "items in the background of the action," and most commonly, "single incidents." Although based on folklore like "Rip Van Winkle," "The Devil and Tom Walker" is thus a much more complex and original work, for instead of starting with a fully developed plot, Irving began with a series of plot elements and fused them into a new and harmonious whole. That he was highly skilled in assembling these traditional motifs is evidenced by the number of critics who have accepted "The Devil and Tom Walker" as a rewritten version of a folktale that he had heard or read.

To fully understand Irving's increasingly sophisticated use of folklore, it is necessary to briefly consider some of Irving's activities between the publication of The Sketchbook in 1819 and the writing of "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824. The key event here appears to have been the year-long tour through Germany in 1822 and 1823. Prior to this journey, Irving had shown an increasing interest in German lore and literature, and had been encouraged by Sir Walter Scott "to study the fascinating history of folklore." However, Irving's contact with German folklore at this time was limited to the few works over which he struggled to learn the German language and a number of English publications which were "Translated or adapted from the popular literature of Germany." The trip to Germany in 1822 gave Irving a new opportunity: a chance to investigate and gather up German folklore at first-hand. As he wrote to Thomas Storrow at the beginning of the tour, "I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany and get from her, her wonderful budget of stories." In other words, Irving was out to collect folklore in its purest state, directly from oral transmission. Stanley Williams notes this shift in Irving's attitude, commenting that "he now formed a resolution that folklore should not merely entertain the knight-errant but should earn his lordship's bread and butter. He would really follow that impulse felt at Abbotsford in 1817 and create his volume of German legends. The tour now became a hunt for gnomes, pixies, and phantom armies; and he extended the journal into a saving bank for this species of coin." That the hunt was clearly successful is revealed by the numerous legends and scraps of lore that may be found in the letters and journals written during the German tour. At Salzburg, for example, Irving noted that "the mountain regions are full of fable and elfin story, and I had some wonderful tales told me." In his journal, he even wrote out seven local legends from this region, all of them concerned with the imposing figure of Untersberg Mountain. Walter Reichart points out that none of these legends appears to have a literary source, "so that it seems likely that Irving actually heard them from some of the inhabitants." Since Irving had little time or ability for reading German during his travels, this conclusion is almost inescapable. In addition, the letters and journals abound with fragments of and brief references to well-known tales and motifs, such as "the Emperor and his army shut up in the enchanted mountain'' and "the Black Huntsman and the enchanted Bullets." Altogether, it appears that Irving rapidly enlarged his working knowledge of German folklore, and there are numerous entries indicating that he also enjoyed retelling the tales to his friends. The German experience thus served not only to increase his "savings bank" of potential source materials, but more important, to teach him the technique of combining and recombining these materials so as to form new tales. It is exactly this shift in emphasis, from written to oral sources, from the tale to the motif, and from the mere materials to the actual mechanics of folklore, that is reflected in "The Devil and Tom Walker." As such, this tale suggests that a reevaluation of Irving's later use of folklore is very much needed. As the following analysis reveals, Irving's use of folklore after his German tour was somewhat less ''slavish'' than most critics have been willing to admit....

In conjunction with the prevalence of German motifs, it is important to note that practically the entire plot is made up of elements from folklore. In fact the only non-traditional portions of the plot are the two sections which I have labeled the domestic and financial subplots. The tale opens with three Amencan motifs built around the legend of Captain Kidd. Immediately following is the domestic subplot, which is reminiscent of the marital situation in "Rip Van Winkle" and serves to develop the mutual enmity between Tom and his wife. Merely to infuriate her, Tom obstinately refuses to close his pact with the Devil. She, therefore, runs off with the family silverware to make her own bargain, and is apparently carried off by the Devil after an heroic struggle. After this humorous interlude, Irving immediately returns to the main plot of folk motifs, and it is not until after the pact is actually completed that he inserts the financial subplot. This section describes the state of affairs in colonial Boston, neatly delineating the avarice and religious hypocrisy of the inhabitants. With the uttering of the oath, Irving again returns to the main plot, and the tale moves swiftly to a close. Taken as a whole, the plot thus consists of a central chain of folk motifs into which two realistic subplots have been inserted....

Irving's choice of the Kidd legends as a framework for "The Devil and Tom Walker'' was a good one, for it placed the tale in a distinctly American setting. Willard Hallam Bonner, who has made an extensive study of Kidd, notes that "the composite legend surrounding him is Saxon North America's first full-bodied legend." However, this legend is a limited one, in that it generally contains only a few, often recurring motifs. There is first a widespread belief that Kidd did bury his treasure, either along the southern New England coast or up the Hudson River. In addition, there is the belief that the treasure is guarded either by a slain sailor or worse, by "the Earl of Hell himself, at whose command Kidd 'buried his Bible in the sand.'" As noted in the earlier plot outline, Irving used these American motifs at the beginning of the tale, although he shifted the place of burial to the Boston region. With the introduction of the domestic subplot, which follows immediately, Irving moved away from the Kidd legends and began using German motifs which concerned the Devil. Apparently it was the Kidd stories heard from Colonel Aspinwall that gave Irving the initial inspiration and got the tale underway. Once started, Irving inserted the two realistic subplots and used the figure of the Devil, first mentioned in the American legend, as the means of transition to the numerous German materials....

Irving certainly never intended ''The Devil and Tom Walker'' to be taken as a folktale. His purpose was to produce an entertaining, fast-moving story based largely on German folk motifs and firmly rooted in an American locale. In this he was eminently successful, and ''The Devil and Tom Walker" deserves to be ranked with "Rip Van Winkle" and ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' as one of his best tales. Stanley Williams has pointed out that the major flaw in Tales of a Traveller was Irving's failure ''to draw bravely from that wonderful stock of German legend in his notebooks and in his mind." While this analysis is true for most of these tales, it is clearly not applicable to "The Devil and Tom Walker," where the carefully assembled chain of German motifs provides the backbone for a unique and vigorous plot structure. Still a second valid criticism of the Tales of a Traveller is that Irving did not succeed "in transplanting German legends into American settings where the native landscape could reflect the spirit of the tale." Once again, "The Devil and Tom Walker" proves the exception, for Irving skillfully introduced the German materials through the use of the native Kidd legends, using the figure of the Devil as the unifying force for all of the motifs. By adding the two realistic subplots, a few brief character sketches, and some local history and legend, Irving succeeded in developing a truly American atmosphere. As William L. Hedge has observed, Irving was able ''to bring certain aspects of Puritanism into dramatic focus by connecting Yankee shrewdness and Puritan respectability." As previously noted, this satire on the avarice and hypocrisy of colonial Boston is skillfully integrated with the folklore Irving used, and the final motif, Devil's money becomes ashes, is so well chosen that it serves as a fitting epilogue to the tale.

Once the construction of "The Devil and Tom Walker'' is laid bare, it becomes evident that Irving, at least after his German tour, was no "slavish" imitator but rather a highly skilled manipulator of both American and German folklore. In avoiding the stock Gothic machinery and a distant, foreign setting for an American locale, and in assembling a chain of folk motifs that was distinctly his own invention, he created a vigorous tale that is still very much alive and meaningful today. This is not to assert that Irving possessed a first-rank imagination, as his successors Poe and Hawthorne did. Instead, as his contemporary Coleridge might have observed, Irving was endowed with a mechanical rather than an organic imagination. In this sense, he is not unlike the medieval French author Chretien de Troyes, who drew so heavily on traditional materials yet left his own stamp on them. Like Chretien, Irving knew and understood the traditional storyteller's skill in relating folk motifs and so, in tales such as "The Devil and Tom Walker,'' he was able to recombine and reshape such motifs into new and significant forms.

Source: Charles G. Zug, III, ''The Construction of 'The Devil and Tom Walker': A Study of Irving's Later Use of Folklore," in New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No 4, December, 1968, pp. 243.

The Devil in the Writings of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In the spring of 1951, when the emotionalism of the MacArthur controversy was at its highest, a mob of people in one of our western towns hanged Secretary of State Acheson in effigy. If this act had taken place about one-hundred-seventy years ago, there probably would have been one difference—the figure of the devil would also have had a part in the ceremony. We learn from contemporary accounts of the Revolution that when Benedict Arnold's treason became known his effigy was burned and hanged throughout the towns of America, invariably with an image of the devil thrusting him into hell with a pitchfork. Even as late as 1828, the school board of Lancaster, Ohio, declared the railroad a device of the devil. And when Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" appeared, a contemporary critic of 1825 wrote: "If Mr. Irving believes in the existence of Tom Walker's master we can scarcely conceive how he can so earnestly jest about him, at all events, we would counsel him to beware lest his own spells should prove fatal to him." Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, therefore, being fairly close to the times when the devil had some status, could be expected as romantic writers to use the devil as one of their characters.

The devil as a character is, of course, a manifestation of romantic writing concerning the supernatural. It is obvious, however, that he is not to be associated only with the so-called romantic period, for he has appeared throughout our literature from the writings of Cotton Mather to Whittaker Chambers' article on the history of the devil in Life magazine of February 2, 1948....

A biographer of Irving stated that "The Devil and Tom Walker'' may possibly be called ''a sort of comic New England Faust, for during 1822 and 1823 Irving had read and re-read Goethe." Calling him a New England Faust might be a clever way of referring to Irving's devil, but another critic analyzes more accurately when he states that the story "owes very little to foreign influences. Though he is interested in popular legend, and shows sympathy with the Romantic movement of Europe, Irving's story is redolent of American soil."

Irving's devil is of the pure New England variety—and he could hardly have been thinking of Goethe's regal Mephistopheles when he wrote his story. Irving places his humorous tale in Massachusetts history during the office of Governor Belcher (17301741). Tom Walker, at no point a serious figure, finds himself following an "ill chosen route through a swamp thickly grown with the great gloomy pines and hemlocks which made it dark at noonday." After setting the atmosphere in much the same way that Hawthorne did later, Irving recounts the legend of the "Old Indian Fort" of which the common people had a bad opinion ''since the Indian wars when it was asserted that the savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the evil spirit.'' After this reference to the superstition of the early New England folk, the devil suddenly appears unannounced—a technique used by most devil-writers. Tom had just uncovered a skull when a gruff voice says, "Let that skull alone!" Irving describes the devil in accordance with his common title in New England, "The Black Man."

''You are commonly called Old Scratch," Tom remarks calmly enough to the devil. "The same at your service," the devil replies. Irving explains that Tom ''had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil." The outcome of this meeting is that the devil promises Captain Kidd's buried treasure if Tom will sell his soul. Returning to his wife, Tom tells her of the devil's offer. But when she urges him to enter into the contract, he refuses in order to irritate her with his perversity. The wife then sets out to make a deal with "Old Scratch," and Irving comments, ''Though a female scold is generally considered a match for the devil, yet in this instance she appears to have had the worst of it." This remark is reminiscent of the imported English ballad "The Farmer's Curst Wife," wherein the wife is taken off to hell by the devil and then brought back to the fanner because she is too unpleasant even for the devil. But Tom's wife is never seen again, and when Tom goes to the swamp, he sees signs of a fierce struggle. ''Egad," he says to himself, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!"

Feeling gratitude to the devil for carrying off his wife, Tom then decides to do business with him. But the devil is crafty, and after some delay Tom again meets "the black woodsman," who now affects indifference while casually humming a tune. If one were to imagine an actor taking this devil's part, Charles Laughton might well be an appropriate choice.

The contract is eventually made between them. The devil tries to make the condition that Tom enter the slave trade, but Tom refuses, agreeing, however, to open a usury business in Boston. There are two explanations as to why Irving mentioned the slave trade here: that he was repelled by a barbarous practice that the devil fosters with primary interest, and/or that he wanted to achieve suspense by putting into the reader's mind the idea that Tom might escape that fulfillment of the contract because of a momentary humane feeling.

Using Kidd's treasure to build up a fortune in making loans and then foreclosing, Tom, as he grows older and more conscious of the terms of the contract, becomes a religious zealot, carrying the Bible at all times in order to ward off the devil. Irving refers to the legend that Tom buried his horse upside down because when the world would be turned upside down on the last day he would be able to give the devil a run for it. But according to Irving, if he did this, it was of no help to him, ''at least so says the authentic old legend."

Tom is caught off guard without his Bible while he is foreclosing a mortgage, and is seized during a storm and carried off in the direction of the swamp and the Old Indian Fort, never to be seen again. Irving concludes the legendary story:

Let all griping money-brokers lay this story to heart. The truth of it is not to be doubted. The very hole under the oak trees, whence he dug Kidd's money, is to be seen to this day; and the neighboring swamp and old Indian fort are often haunted nights by a figure on horseback, in morning-gown and white cap, which is doubtless the troubled spirit of the usurer. In fact, the story has resolved itself into a proverb, and is the origin of the popular saying, so prevalent throughout New England, of "The Devil and Tom Walker.''

Irving would be interested to know that the popular saying to which he refers continued to be used until the twentieth century....

Source: James J. Lynch, "The Devil in the Writings of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe," in the New York Folklore Quarterly, Volume VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1952, pp. 111-31.

Hedges, William L., Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965, 231-233.

Ringe, Donald A., "Irving's Use of the Gothic Mode," in Critical Essays on Washington Irving, edited by Donald A. Ringe, G K. Hall, 1990, pp 202-17.


Critical Overview